By the time the Great Fire of 1885 had burned itself out, a 100-acre swath of Galveston Island lay in ruins.
The following morning, Saturday, Nov. 14, headlines in The Galveston Daily News amply described the catastrophe:
A GREAT HOLOCAUST.
More Than Forty Blocks of Buildings Destroyed.
100 Acres in the Heart of the City Laid Bare.
About 2,300 People Made Homeless at a Single Blow.
The first alert sounded during the previous day’s witching hours.
“About 1:45 o’clock yesterday morning the alarm bell gave the signal which foretold one of the most dire conflagrations which has ever devastated Galveston Island, sweeping as it did almost from bay to gulf across the island, destroying in its path some of the most elegant residences of Galveston, and reducing to ashes a portion of the city in territorial area about 100 acres, all thickly populated and embracing about forty squares, with nothing now to mark the place where stately residences once stood save a number of ghostly chimneys and an occasional bare wall where a brick building chanced to be in the wake of the devouring flames.
“The holocaust was confined to the residence portion of the city, composed almost entirely of frame buildings, where scarcely a vestige remains over the burned district to outline the places where the houses so recently stood, some palatial mansions and others less pretentious, but all bearing the happy name of home to several thousand people who today are homeless.”
The blaze ignited after a foundry’s furnace was left lit and unattended — and fanned by nature’s indifference.
“The flames were first discovered in the rear of what was known as the Vulcan foundry, and while the direct origin can not be traced, it is supposed to have occurred from the leaving of fire in the furnace, which may have been fanned into flames by the stiff gale which prevailed during the night. This foundry was located on Strand, between Sixteenth and Seventeenth streets, and the fire was first seen in the rear of the foundry, on the alley between Strand and Avenue A, about the location of the furnace.
“It was some time after the discovery of the fire that a general alarm was sounded; hence a consequent delay of the arrival of the fire department. Add to this the very defective working of the waterworks and the fact from 2 to 4 o’clock a.m. the wind registered a velocity of thirty miles an hour.”
Most of Galveston’s building and housing stock at the time was built of wood — much still is today — and with the near-gale-force wind blowing from the northeast, the fire quickly burned toward the Gulf.
“The flames soon spread with startling rapidity, and within a very few minutes were being blown a solid sheet of fire across Strand street, catching the frame buildings on the opposite or south side. While the fire department was very severely criticized, mainly by those opposed to the recent change to a paid system, they did, under the circumstances, about all that could be done with the limited number of men in the service, and after the flames had crossed the block between Strand and Mechanic and Sixteenth and Seventeenth streets the combined fire departments of the State would have proved ineffectual to overcome their progress.
“On the northwest corner of the block between Strand and Mechanic and Sixteenth and Seventeenth streets was a lumber yard, at which every effort was directed to prevent its burning, as the high piles of dry lumber in flames would have been but kindling to the general fire.
“The high wind, however, carried sparks and large pieces of blazing embers high up over house tops and through the air with a force that wafted them several squares ahead of the flames as death dealing couriers to announce the dire and inevitable result.”
Homeowners and others rushed to remove whatever belongings could be saved. They had underestimated the firestorm’s fever.
“The scene was sublime in its very awfulness, and to the lookers-on it soon became apparent that all efforts would be useless in trying to check the headstrong fury of the flames, and then attention was turned toward trying to save what was possible of the effects of the houses in the immediate march of the storm-beaten flames. All volunteered to give a helping hand in this, and houses for blocks around were stripped of their contents, which were carried, as it was thought, out of danger — those living on the gulf front, who were busy in assisting their distressed neighbors living along the bay side, little dreaming that they would be called to the preservation of their own families and firesides.”
Eventually, the fire, having consumed virtually everything in its path, encountered open ground.
“The block between Eighteenth and Nineteenth and M½ and N, was consumed with the exception of one cottage on the northwest corner of the block. Petering out for want of food, and being offered some resistance by an engine that was placed here, the great fire was stopped at O, not, however, until it had destroyed the block between 19th and 20th and N and N½, and between 19th and 20th and N½ and O, excepting three small cottages on the south-west corner of the block.
“The limit was reached about 6:30 or 7 o’clock, and within the space of about five hours over forty blocks of Galveston’s buildings succumbed to the flames.”
All told, the terrible fire destroyed 568 houses, yet, miraculously, there is no evidence that a single life was lost.